What values should guide Britain’s role in the world, post-Brexit?

March 3, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam today publishes (with UK think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre) a collection of essays from parliamentarians and policy experts called ‘Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: building a values based foreign policy’. Here are a few highlights from the conclusion, snappily written by Adam Hug, Abigael Baldoumas, Katy Chakrabortty and Danny Sriskandarajah:

‘The extent to which the United Kingdom is to be taken seriously on the world stage post-Brexit will depend significantly on whether it has the confidence to stand up for what it says it believes in or risk its focus on trade being seen as a sign of weakness and inexorable decline. There is a widely shared fear, particularly in the short to medium term as the UK completes its conscious uncoupling from the European Union, that commercial considerations will overwhelm other priorities. The UK must aspire to be more than simply a cold, wet Dubai.

A whole-government approach to the UK’s foreign policy is to be welcomed. However it is important to ensure that the UK’s values don’t get lost amid interdepartmental wrangling: they must instead be mainstreamed to all those involved in policy making and delivery. A joined-up government shouldn’t come at the expense of the world’s poorest or those facing human rights abuses and conflict.

The UK has an opportunity to articulate a powerful vision for ‘Global Britain’ that is defined by commitments to human rights, inclusive representation at home and abroad, and by the ways it uses resources to have the greatest impact on poverty and inequality. Different stakeholders and political actors will have different views about what should be contained in such a statement of values, but whatever the government decides, a clear, concise declaration that enumerates the key principles would be very helpful. Authors in this collection have set out potential principles for such a declaration.

Building on such a statement of values the Government should consider setting a ‘Global Britain’ values test for all major policy and spending decisions with an international dimension, including trade deals. This would set out the government’s impact assessment of how each decision will affect the goals enumerated in the ‘Global Britain’ values statement.

Given past critiques of decision making in the EU when the UK was a member, new processes in Westminster should not be less publicly accountable than the processes for scrutiny by the European Parliament, Member States and public that it has just left.

One way to show that the UK is not being overly cowed by commercial constraints will be ensuring that UK Ambassadors feel supported and encouraged to speak out on human rights and other abuses taking place in the countries where they are posted. Such actions should often be coordinated with other like-minded partners to benefit from strength in numbers, whilst not being afraid to show leadership where necessary. Ministerial statements should follow a similar approach. While the UK is not in a position to dictate terms to countries abusing human rights and other international values, such statements are often of significant value to local activists working to defend their rights.

The United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP 26) represents a chance for real climate leadership from the UK Government and is the first big test of a values-based vision for ‘Global Britain’. This will be dependent on investment in the hard work of diplomacy to raise the ambition of other nation’s plans to reduce emissions, getting our own house in order at home, and relentless focus on a just way forward for the counties and communities worst affected. Beyond the COP, policy coherence is key. The government cannot continue to finance fossil fuel projects overseas while claiming climate leadership. The UK’s trade regime could be a powerful expression of its commitment to environmental and sustainability policy. The government should review all trade provisions in its trade agreements to ‘stress test’ them against climate goals as well as human rights commitments, potentially using the suggested ‘Global Britain’ values process outlined above.

In a fast-changing world with new powers rising, old institutions struggling and future challenges emerging, having a clear approach to values in British foreign policy is not just about doing what we think is right but about ensuring we are actively helping to shape the international systems, norms and rules that the UK will have to work within for decades to come.

The threats to the idea of liberal democracy from increasingly confident authoritarian states and internal strains and inequalities in established democracies are real and need to be addressed to halt and reverse its decline. As a medium-sized power, albeit one with considerable assets, the UK will need to show it is still willing to work collaboratively with partners and to use the tools of influence available to it to creatively and meaningfully shape the future direction of the international system and to respond effectively to specific crises and abuses of its values.’

March 3, 2020
Duncan Green